Now It's Starting to Make Sense

I thought the Miami Herald was a little quiet on the death of Michael Browning, a writer who was central to the newspaper's identity for a couple of (its finest) decades. No tribute, no guestbook, just a repackaged obit written by Palm Beach Post reporter Scott Eyman.

I encouraged the Herald to do more yesterday. Little did I know the stormy background between Browning and his former newspaper. Someone left a comment below referencing a letter to Romenesko from Polk Laffoon, then a Knight Ridder vice president for corporate affairs.

On Aug. 5, 2005, Laffoon wrote:

"Some years back, in an unflattering New Yorker article about The Miami Herald, author Mimi Swartz liberally quoted Michael Browning concerning his negative feelings toward the newspaper. Michael displayed special animus for the newspaper's corporate parent, Knight Ridder, and for its CEO, Tony Ridder -- whose largest responsibility, after all, is for the overall health and continuity of Knight Ridder. Now Michael is back criticizing Knight Ridder's sale of the Detroit Free Press. It is disappointing to see all this from one who received unusual consideration while a writer for The Herald."

He was reacting to a letter that Browning had written to Romenesko that included the full text of an extraordinary letter he wrote to Tony Ridder back in 1995, when the newspaper had decidedly begun its decline. I include it in its glorious entirety below:

From MICHAEL C. BROWNING: I sent this letter to Tony Ridder a decade ago, when The Miami Herald was just beginning to feel the pinch occasioned by cutbacks made for higher and higher profit margins. I hoped to soften Ridder's heart by politeness and sweet reasonableness. To his credit, he was courteous enough to call me personally and assure me that all was well, and that I was a valued member of the Knight-Ridder team. It was a friendly exchange of views and I appreciated his solicitude.

But unfortunately everything has continued to roll downhill since then. I feel particularly sorry for the Tallahassee Democrat, one of the oldest papers in Florida, which recently celebrated its 100th anniversary. Now it has been sold down the river to Gannett which, I am reliably informed, is the Simon Legree of newspaper chains.

Anyway, this shows the futility of words, versus the bottom line. Had I the tongues of angels, I could not have slowed this process one whit. "With many a sorrowful backward glance," I left The Herald in 1999. The golden middle of my life was spent there. I still wish the old paper well, but I am not optimistic about its future. ......

Mr. Anthony Ridder Knight-Ridder Newspapers The Miami Herald 1 Herald Plaza Miami FL 33132

14 August 1995

Dear Mr. Ridder:

Are we being slowly boiled down for our glue?

You may be wholly unaware of the profound abyss of gloom and bitter despair into which the Miami Herald newsroom has been plunged, as a result of the latest corporate directive: that $35 million must be slashed from our budget, in order to raise profits three percentage points. In my 17 years at The Herald, I have never seen morale lower. Many of us are beginning to wonder if there is some obscure, top-management scheme to dismantle the paper entirely over the next ten years.

If my raven-croaking jars against the decorum of the boardroom, I am sorry. But certain it is that people are compiling resumes, talented editors and writers are abandoning ship. In the past five years you have lost people you can probably never replace. The Washington Post and the New York Times are the richer.

We aren't making wing-nuts or peanut butter here. Newspapering is not manufacturing, except at the final stage. It requires a certain spiritual commitment and idealism. While we can live without raises (for awhile anyway), what none of us can live without, is a sense of a future. We would sacrifice much, and willingly, if the paper were in danger of foundering. Bedamned if I can see any such peril! Meanwhile, our porches and roof-beams are being sawed up into firewood to warm the already comfy toes of the stockholders.

Boss, even the great plutocrats of the 19th century at some point decided they had enough money and turned at least partway to philanthropy. Carnegie endowed libraries; Morgan built a museum; Rockefeller started a foundation. No one has forgotten their names. They are honored more today for their cultural largesse than for their oil wells, steel mills, or banks of marble.

Look in front of you: The Herald is a far richer, more worthwhile enterprise than the stockholders' reports it generates. It informs, it amuses, it challenges, it spreads democracy and literacy, it warms and uplifts thousands of human hearts. It is alive. A vital, living, healthy Miami Herald would be a worthy monument to any man's life. Indeed, a stack of Herald by-lines may well be all I leave behind me, when I die, and the memories, thrills, sorrows and experiences they encompass are a source of infinite satisfaction to me.

Alas, all of this is diminishing daily before our eyes. At every stage we have heard good, sound, cogent, practical, financial reasons recited to justify every cutback, every retreat, every abandonment of territory won. As one who juggles words himself, I recognize superb jugglery when I see it. But the results are dismal and undeniable. We are dwindling away.

At some point -- and we may already have passed it, with this latest harsh decree -- it becomes mathematically impossible to produce larger and larger profits from slenderer and slenderer resources. The Israelites of old were commanded by Pharoah to make bricks without straw. They tried it for awhile, but eventually gave up and left Egypt in search of new employment. Many of our most talented people are following their example. More and more, those who remain are the styrofoam peanuts that remain in a box after the goods are unpacked: the Osculators of Posteriors, the Hallelujah-Shouters, the Glib and Prolific Memo-Writers, -- the dross, the dregs, the drones. You will see. You will gaze about you someday soon and behold an army of broken mannequins.

If collapse, ruin and mass exodus are the whole idea, then disregard this letter and forgive the temerity that inspired it. I have written it, "not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more."


Michael C. Browning

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